'Messieurs Les Poilus De La Grande Guerre'
by Henry Sheahan
from his book 'A Volunteer Poilu' 1916

French Soldiers as seen by an American Volunteer Ambulance Driver

the french poilu as seen in various illustrations

left : an illustration by Lucien Jonas
right : from a french children's book on the war


The word "poilu," now applied to a French soldier, means literally "a hairy one," but the term is understood metaphorically. Since time immemorial the possession of plenty of bodily hair has served to indicate a certain sturdy, male bearishness, and thus the French, long before the war, called any good, powerful fellow — "un véritable poilu." The term has been found applied to soldiers of the Napoleonic wars. The French soldier of to-day, coming from the trenches looking like a well-digger, but contented, hearty, and strong, is the poilu par excellence.

The origin of the term "Boche," meaning a German, has been treated in a thousand articles, and controversy has raged over it. The probable origin of the term, however, lies in the Parisian slang word "caboche," meaning an ugly head. This became shortened to "Boche," and was applied to foreigners of Germanic origin, in exactly the way that the American-born laborer applies the contemptuous term "square-head" to his competitors from northern Europe. The word "Boche" cannot be translated by anything except "Boche," any more than our word "Wop," meaning an Italian, can be turned into French. The same attitude, half banter, half race contempt, lies at the heart of both terms.

When the poilus have faced the Boches for two weeks in the trenches, they march down late at night to a village behind the lines, far enough away from the batteries to be out of danger of everything except occasional big shells, and near enough to be rushed up to the front in case of an attack. There they are quartered in houses, barns, sheds, and cellars, in everything that can decently house and shelter a man. These two weeks of repos are the poilus’ elysium, for they mean rest from strain, safety, and comparative comfort. The English have behind their lines model villages with macadam roads, concrete sidewalks, a water system, a sewer system, and all kinds of schemes to make the soldiers happy; the French have to be contented with an ordinary Lorraine village, kept in good order by the Medical Corps, but quite destitute of anything as chic as the British possess.

The village of cantonnement is pretty sure to be the usual brown- walled, red-roofed village of Lorraine clumped round its parish church or mouldering castle. In such a French village there is always a hall, usually over the largest wineshop, called the "Salle de Fêtes," and this hall serves for the concert each regiment gives while en repos. The Government provides for, indeed insists upon, a weekly bath, and the bathhouse, usually some converted factory or large shed, receives its daily consignments of companies, marching up to the douches as solemnly as if they were going to church. Round the army continues the often busy life of the village, for to many such a hamlet the presence of a multitude of soldiers is a great economic boon. Grocery-shops, in particular, do a rushing business, for any soldier who has a sou is glad to vary the government menu with such delicacies as pâtés de foie gras, little sugar biscuits, and the well- beloved tablet of chocolate.

While the grocery-man (l'épicier) is fighting somewhere in the north or in the Argonne, madame l'épicière stays at home and serves the customers. At her side is her own father, an old fellow wearing big yellow sabots, and perhaps the grocer's son and heir, a boy about twelve years old. Madame is dressed entirely in black, not because she is in mourning, but because it is the rural fashion; she wears a knitted shoulder cape, a high black collar, and moves in a brisk, businesslike way; the two men wear the blue-check overalls persons of their calling affect, in company with very clean white collars and rather dirty, frayed bow ties of unlovely patterns. Along the counter stand the poilus, young, old, small, and large, all wearing various fadings of the horizon blue, and helmets often dented. "Some pâté de foie gras, madame, s'il vous plaît." "Oui, monsieur." "How much is this cheese, maman?" cries the boy in a shrill treble. In the barrel-haunted darkness at the rear of the shop, the old man fumbles round for some tins of jelly. The poilu is very fond of sweets. Sometimes swish bang! a big shell comes in unexpectedly, and shopkeepers and clients hurry, at a decent tempo, to the cellar. There, in the earthy obscurity, one sits down on empty herring-boxes and vegetable cases to wait calmly for the exasperating Boches to finish their nonsense. There is a smell of kerosene oil and onions in the air. A lantern, always on hand for just such an emergency, burns in a corner. "Have you had a bad time in the trenches this week, Monsieur Levrault? " says the épicière to a big, stolid soldier who is a regular customer.

"No, quite passable, Madame Champaubert."

"And Monsieur Petticollot, how is he?"

"Very well, thank you, madame. His captain was killed by a rifle grenade last week."

"Oh, the poor man."

Crash goes a shell. Everybody wonders where it has fallen. In a few seconds the éclats rain down into the street.

" Dirty animals," says the voice of the old man in the darkest of all the corners.


french soldiers in a makeshift shelter and aid-post


Madame Champaubert begins the story of how a cousin of hers who keeps a grocery-shop at Mailly, near the frontier, was cheated by a Boche tinware salesman. The cellar listens sympathetically. The boy says nothing, but keeps his eyes fixed on the soldiers. In about twenty minutes the bombardment ends, and the bolder ones go out to ascertain the damage. The soldier's purchases are lying on the counter. These he stuffs into his musette, the cloth wallet beloved of the poilu, and departs. The colonel's cook comes in; he has got hold of a good ham and wants to deck it out with herbs and capers. Has madame any capers? While she is getting them, the colonel's cook retails the cream of all the regimental gossip.

These people of Lorraine who have stayed behind, "Lorrains," the French term them, are thoroughly French, though there is some German blood in their veins. This Teuton addition is of very ancient date, being due to the constant invasions which have swept up the valley of the Moselle. This intermingling of the races, however, continued right up to 1870, but since then the union of French and German stock has been rare. It was most frequent, perhaps, during the years between 1804 and 1850, when Napoleon's domination of the principalities and states along the Rhine led to a French social and commercial invasion of Rhenish Germany, an invasion which ended only with the growth of German nationalism. The middle classes in particular intermarried because they were more apt to be engaged in commerce. But since 1870, two barriers, one geographic — annexed Lorraine, and one intellectual — hatred, have kept the neighbors apart. The Lorrain of to-day, no matter what his ancestors were, is a thorough Frenchman. These Lorrains are between medium height and tall, strongly built, with light, tawny hair, good color, and a brownish complexion.

The poilus who come to the village en repos are from every part of France, and are of all ages between nineteen and forty-five. I remember seeing a boy aged only fourteen who had enlisted, and was a regular member of an artillery regiment. The average regiment includes men of every class and caste, for every Frenchman who can shoulder a gun is in the war. Thus the dusty little soldier who is standing by Poste A, may be So-and-So the sculptor, the next man to him is simple Jacques who has a little farm near Bourges, and the man beyond, Emile, the notary's clerk. It is this amazing fraternity that makes the French army the greatest army in the world. The officers of a regiment of the active forces (by l'armée active you are to understand the army actually in the garrisons and under arms from year to year) are army officers by profession ; the officers of the reserve regiments are either retired officers of the regular army or men who have voluntarily followed the severe courses in the officers' training-school. Thus the colonel and three of the commandants of a certain regiment were ex-officers of the regular army, while all the other officers, captains, lieutenants, and so forth, were citizens who followed civilian pursuits. Captain X was a famous lawyer, Captain B a small merchant in a little known provincial town, Captain C a photographer. Any Frenchman who has the requisite education can become an officer if he is willing to devote more of his time, than is by law required, to military service. Thus the French army is the soul of democracy, and the officer understands, and is understood by, his men. The spirit of the French army is remarkably fraternal, and this fraternity is at once social and mystical. It has a social origin, for the poilus realize that the army rests on class justice and equal opportunity; it has a mystical strength, because war has taught the men that it is only the human being that counts, and that comradeship is better than insistence on the rights and virtues of pomps and prides. After having been face to face with death for two years, a man learns something about the true values of human life.

The men who tramp into the village at one and two o'clock in the morning are men who have for two weeks been under a strain that two years of experience has robbed of its tensity. But strain it is, nevertheless, as the occasional carrying of a maniac reveals. They know very well why they are fighting; even the most ignorant French laborer has some idea as to what the affair is all about. The Boches attacked France who was peacefully minding her own business; it was the duty of all Frenchmen to defend France, so everybody went to the war. And since the war has gone on for so long, it must be seen through to the very end. Not a single poilu wants peace or is ready for peace. And the French, unlike the English, have continually under their eyes the spectacle of their devastated land. Yet I heard no ferocious talk about the Germans, no tales of French cruelty toward German prisoners.

Nevertheless, a German prisoner who had been taken in the Bois-le- Prêtre confessed to me a horror of the French breaking through into Germany. Looking round to see if any one was listening, he said in English, for he was an educated man — "Just remember the French Revolution. Just remember the French Revolution. God! what cruelties. You remember Carrier at Nantes, don't you, my dear sir? All the things we are said to have done in Belgium—" But here the troop of prisoners was hurried to one side, and I never saw the man again. An army will always have all kinds of people in it, the good, the bad, the degenerate, the depraved, the brutal; and these types will act according to their natures. But I can't imagine several regiments of French poilus doing in little German towns what the Germans did at Nomeny. The backbone of the French army, as he is the backbone of France, is the French peasant. In spite of De Maupassant's ugly tales of the Norman country people, and Zola's studies of the sordid, almost bestial, life of certain unhappy, peasant families, the French peasant {cultivateur) is a very fine fellow. He has three very good qualities, endurance, patience, and willingness to work. Apart from these characteristics, he is an excellent fellow by himself; not jovial, to be sure, but solid, self-respecting, and glad to make friends when there is a chance that the friendship will be a real one. He does not care very much for the working men of the towns, the ouvriers, with their fantastic theories of universal brotherhood and peace, and he hates the deputé whom the working man elects as he hates a vine fungus. A needless timidity, some fear of showing himself off as a simpleton, has kept him from having his just influence in French politics; but the war is freeing him from these shackles, and when peace comes, he will make himself known: that is, if there are any peasants left to vote.


in camp


Another thing about the peasantry is that trench warfare does not weary them, the constant contact with the earth having nothing unusual in it. A friend of mine, the younger son of a great landed family of the province of Anjou, was captain of a company almost exclusively composed of peasants of his native region; he loved them as if they were his children, and they would follow him anywhere. The little company, almost to a man, was wiped out in the battles round Verdun. In a letter I received from this officer, a few days before his death, he related this anecdote. His company was waiting, in a new trench in a new region, for the Germans to attack. Suddenly the tension was relieved by a fierce little discussion carried on entirely in whispers. His soldiers appeared to be studying the earth of the trench. "What's the trouble about?" he asked. Came the answer, "They are quarreling as to whether the earth of this trench would best support cabbages or turnips."

It is rare to find a French workman (ouvrier) in the trenches. They have all been taken out and sent home to make shells.

The little group to which I was most attached, and for whose hospitality and friendly greeting I shall always be a debtor, consisted of Belin, a railroad clerk; Bonnefon, a student at the École des Beaux- Arts; Magne, a village schoolmaster in the Dauphiné; and Gré try, proprietor of a butcher's shop in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Belin and Magne had violins which they left in the care of a café-keeper in the village, and used to play on them just before dinner. The dinner was served in the house of the village woman who prepared the food of these four, for sous-officiers are entitled to eat by themselves if they can find any one kind enough to look after the cooking. If they can't, then they have to rely entirely on the substantial but hardly delicious cuisine of their regimental cuistot. However, at this village, Madame Brun, the widow of the local carpenter, had offered to take the popotte, as the French term an officer's mess. We ate in a room half parlor, half bedchamber, decorated exclusively with holy pictures. This was a good specimen menu — bread, vermicelli soup, apple fritters, potato salad, boiled beef, red wine, and coffee. Of this dinner, the Government furnished the potatoes, the bread, the meat, the coffee, the wine, and the condiments; private purses paid for the fritters, the vermicelli, and the bits of onion in the salad. Standing round their barns the private soldiers were having a tasty stew of meat and potatoes cooked by the field kitchen, bread, and a cupful of boiled lentils (known in the army as "edible bedbugs"), all washed down with the army pinard, or red wine.


from a French magazine - several views of the 'archetypal' poilu


This village in which the troops were lodged revealed in an interesting way the course of French history. Across the river on a rise was a cross commemorating the victory of the Emperor Jo vin over the invading Germans in 371, and sunken in the bed of the Moselle were still seen lengths of Roman dikes. The heart of the village, however, was the corpse of a fourteenth-century castle which Richelieu had dismantled in 1630. Its destiny had been a curious one. Dismantled by Richelieu, sacked in the French Revolution, it had finally become a kind of gigantic mediaeval apartment house for the peasants of the region. The salle d'honneur was cut up into little rooms, the room of the seigneur became a haymow, and the cellars of the towers were used to store potatoes in. About twenty little chimneys rose over the old, dilapidated battlements. A haymow in this castle was the most picturesque thing I ever saw in a cantonment. It was the wreck of a lofty and noble fifteenth-century room, the ceiling, still a rich red brown, was supported on beautiful square beams, and a cross- barred window of the Renaissance, of which only the stonework remained, commanded a fine view over the river. The walls of the room were of stone, whitewashed years before, and the floor was an ordinary barn floor made of common planks and covered with a foot of new, clean hay. In the center of the southern wall was a Gothic fireplace, still black and ashy within. On the corners of this mantel hung clusters of canteens, guns were stacked by it, and a blue overcoat was rolled up at its base. An old man, the proprietor of the loft, followed us up, made signs that he was completely deaf, and traced in the dust on the floor the date, 1470.

The concerts were held in the "Salle de Fêtes," a hall in which, during peace time, the village celebrates its little festivals. It was an ugly, bare shed with a sloping roof resting on iron girders painted clay white, but the poilus had beautified it with a home-made stage and rustic greenery. The proscenium arch, painted by Bonnefon, was pearl-gray in color and decorated with panels of gilt stripes; and a shield showing the lictor's rods, a red liberty cap and the letters "R. F." served as a headpiece. The scenery, also the work of Bonnefon, represented a Versailles kind of garden full of statues and very watery fountains. There was no curtain. Just below the stage a semicircle of chairs had been arranged for the officers of the regiment, and behind these were wooden benches and a large space for standing room. By the time the concert was supposed to begin, every bench was filled, and standing room was at a premium. Suddenly there were cries of "Le Colonel," and everybody stood up as the fine-looking old colonel and his staff took their places. The orchestra, composed of a pianist, a few violinists, and a flute-player, began to play the "Marseillaise." When the music was over, and everybody decently quiet, the concert began.

"Le Camarade Tollot, of the Théâtre des Variétés de Paris will recite 'Le Dernier Drapeau,'" shouted the announcer. Le Camarade Tollot walked on the stage and bowed, a big, important young man with a lion's mane of dark hair. Then, striking an attitude, he recited in the best French, ranting style, a rhymed tale of a battle in which many regiments charged together, flags flying. One by one the flags fell to the ground as the bearers were cut down by the withering fire of the enemy; all save one who struggled on. It was a fine, old-fashioned, dramatic "will-he-get-there-yes-he-will-he-falls" sort of thing. "Il tombe," said le Camarade Tollot, in what used to be called the "oratorical orotund" — "il tombe." There was a full pause. He was wounded. He rose staggering to his feet. All the other flags were down. He advanced — the last flag (le dernier drapeau) reached the enemy — and died just as his comrades, heartened by his courage, had rallied and were charging to victory. A tremendous storm of applause greeted the speaker, who favored us with the recital of a short, sentimental poem as an encore.

The next number was thus announced: "Le Camarade Millet will sound, first, all the French bugle-calls and then the Boche ones." Le Camarade Millet, a big man with a fine horseshoe beard, stood at the edge of the stage, said, "la Charge français" and blew it on the bugle; then "la Charge boche," and blew that. "La Retraite français — La Retraite boche," etc. Another salvo of applause was given to le Camarade Millet.

"Le Camarade Roland."

Le Camarade Roland was about twenty-one or two years old, but his eyes were old and wise, and he had evidently seen life. He was dark- haired and a little below medium height. The red scar of a wound appeared just below his left ear. After marking time with his feet, he began a kind of patter song about having a telephone, every verse of which ended, "Oh, la la, j'ai le téléphone chez moi" (I've a telephone in my house). "I know who is unfaithful now —who have horns upon their brow," the singer told of surprising secrets and unsuspected affaires de cœur. The silly, music-hall song may seem banal now, but it amused us hugely then. "Le Camarade Duclos."

"Oh, if you could have seen your son, My mother, my mother, Oh, if you could have seen your son, With the regiment " — sang Camarade Duclos, another old-eyed youngster. There was amiable adventure with an amiable "blonde" (oh, if you could have seen your son); another with a "jolie brune" (oh, ma mère, ma mère) ; and still another leçon d'amour. The refrain had a catchy lilt to it, and the poilus began humming it.

"Le Camarade Salvatore."

The newcomer was a big, obese Corsican mountaineer, with a pleasant, round face and brown eyes. He advanced quietly to the side of the stage holding a ten-sou tin flute in his hand, and when he began to play, for an instant I forgot all about the Bois-le-Prêtre, the trenches, and everything else. The man was a born musician. I never heard anything more tender and sweet than the little melody he played. The poilus listened in profound silence, and when he had finished, a kind of sigh exhaled from the hearts of the audience.

There followed another singer, a violinist, and a clown whose song of a soldier on furlough finished with these appreciated couplets: —

"The Government says it is the thing To have a baby every spring; So when your son Is twenty-one, He'll come to the trenches and take papa's place. So do your duty by the race."

In the uproar of cheers of "That's right," and so on, the concert ended.

The day after the concert was Sunday, and at about ten o'clock that morning a young soldier with a fluffy, yellow chin beard came down the muddy street shouting, "le Mouchoir, le Mouchoir." About two or three hundred paper sheets were clutched tightly in his left hand, and he was selling them for a sou apiece. Little groups of poilus gathered round the soldier newsboy; I saw some of them laughing as they went away. The paper was the trench paper of the Bois-le-Prêtre, named the "Mouchoir" (the handkerchief) from a famous position thus called in the Bois. The jokes in it were like the jokes in a local minstrel show, puns on local names, jests about the Boches, and good-humored satire. The spirit of the "Mouchoir" was whole-heartedly amateur. Thus the issue which followed a heavy snowfall contained this genuine wish: —

"Oh, snow, Please go, Leave the trench Of the French; Cross the band Of No Man's Land To where the Boche lies. Freeze him, Squeeze him, Soak him, Choke him, Cover him, Smother him, Till the beggar dies."

This is far from an exact translation, but the idea and the spirit have been faithfully preserved. The "Mouchoir" was always a bit more squeamish than the average, rollicking trench journal, for it was issued by a group of medical service men who were almost all priests. Indeed, there were some issues that combined satire, puns, and piety in a terrifying manner. Its editors printed it in the cellar of the church, using a simple sheet of gelatine for their press.

I wandered in to see the church. The usual number of civilians were to be seen, and a generous sprinkling of soldiers. Through the open door of the edifice the sounds of a mine-throwing competition at the Bois occasionally drifted. The abbé, a big, dark man of thirty-four or five, with a deep, resonant voice and positive gestures, had come to the sermon.

"Brethren," said he, "in place of a sermon this morning, I shall read the annual exposition of our Christian faith" (exposition de la foi chrétienne). He began reading from a little book a historical account of the creation and the temptation, and so concise was the language and so certain his voice that I had the sensation of listening to a series of events that had actually taken place. He might have been reading the communiqué. "Le premier homme was called Adam, and la première femme, Eve. Certain angels began a revolt against God; they are called the bad angels or the demons." (Certains anges se sont mis en revolte contre Dieu; il sont appelles les mauvais anges ou les démons.) " And from this original sin arrives all the troubles, Death to which the human race is subjected." Such was the discourse I heard in the church by the trenches to the accompaniment of the distant chanting of The Wood.

Going by again late in the afternoon, I saw the end of an officer's funeral. The body, in a wooden box covered with the tricolor, was being carried out between two files of muddy soldiers, who stood at attention, bayonets fixed. A peasant's cart, a tumbril, was waiting to take the body to the cemetery; the driver was having a hard time con- trolling a foolish and restive horse. The colonel, a fine-looking man in the sixties, came last from the church, and stood on the steps surrounded by his officers. The dusk was falling.

"Officiers, sous-officiers, soldats.

"Lieutenant de Blanchet, whose death we deplore, was a gallant officer, a true comrade, and a loyal Frenchman. In order that France might live, he was willing to close his eyes on her forever."

The officer advanced to the tumbril and holding his hand high said: —

"Farewell — de Blanchet, we say unto thee the eternal adieu."

The door of the church was wide open. The sacristan put out the candles, and the smoke from them rose like incense into the air. The tumbril rattled away in the dusk. My mind returned again to the phrases of the sermon,—original sin, death, life, of a sudden, seemed strangely grotesque.

It would be hard to find any one more courteous and kind than the French officer. A good deal of the success of the American Ambulance Field Sections in France is due to the hospitality and bon acceuil of the French, and to the work of the French officers attached to the Sections. In Lieutenant Kuhlman, who commanded at Pont-à- Mousson, every American had a good friend and tactful, hard- working officer; in Lieutenant Maas, who commanded at Verdun, the qualities of administrative ability and perfect courtesy were most happily joined.

The principal characteristic of the French soldier is his reasonableness.


several humorous renditions of the french poilu


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